Rubes, Barbarians and the TVA

Tufts Magazine, 2013, Colin Woodard, Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Tufts Magazine, 2013, Colin Woodard, Illustration by Brian Stauffer

 

Watching Bill Maher after dinner is entertaining.  He has guests who talk about interesting issues in engaging conversation.  For me, he also has a distracting penchant for the “F” work and the “R” (Rube) word is used on the show.

In my opinion denouncing “rubes” is not useful.  For some, it may have a “shock-jock” entertainment value, but in my opinion it is low-brow exchange, like an ethnic joke.  In many “better” venues, the discussion always seems to move towards the alleged stupidity of America’s “rubes” who by clinging to their coal, gasoline, Bibles, birth-certificate-determined-bathrooms, American jobs, and guns are retrogressive citizens.   The stated truth for many is their tenacity to these life-choices simply distracts us from the self-evident truths buttressing America’s new economy.

One of Bill’s recent guests, the liberal author Thomas Frank, had much to say about this phenomenon in his book Listen, Liberal.  The focus of the book is that our nation is being shaped for the “new economy”.  The thrust is to shed labor as a major constituency for the Democratic Party.  Instead of the blue collar worker and formerly the smaller farmer, the primary constituency of the party has become the elite, educated professional and the manager.  The alliances which have been created are powerful, but by-and-large, they leave out the high school educated (or less) worker that once was such a strong component of the Party.  We are a nation of urban area “metros” and old economy “retros” – separate and unequal.

Bill’s show captured this in a recent discussion about climate change and the challenge of West Virginia’s coal economy.  The challenge is not only the market based on natural gas, but the double whammy of regulations that will assure that coal is shunned as if it were an “assault rifle”.  Barney Frank was on Mr. Maher’s show and he talked about this.  He indicated the solution is obvious in educating the West Virginia worker to staff a new zone with green technology manufacturing.

It is very easy to see this as a beneficial future promised by the Democratic majority to the beleaguered resource worker.  BUT, is it practical – CAN IT HAPPEN?  Or, could it be a red herring distracting us from the thought you cannot just pull the economic rug from under the working people of an entire American region?  There may be some green development in the mountains, but if panoramas of the modern American countryside are a guide, by and large, most of the population will be abandoned to achieve the magnificent alliance presumably to address climate-change.

The mountaineers will likely become the unfortunate debris of alleged necessary action and victims of a governmental order that makes them dependent, waiting for their beef to arrive – not unlike the history of many Native Americans.  But isn’t this to be expected?  Doesn’t every movement forward involves winners and losers and isn’t it reasonable that the less educated so-called rubes, living further from cultivated society should bear these necessary burden for all of us?  Is it not in the natural order – survival of the fittest and the best connected?

It is easy for some fellow citizens to understand why these so-called “losers” do not perceive that the workings of our national government support their and their family’s well-being.  In many cases they feel, powerless, unsafe and disconnected from what is becoming America.  They do not have the reassurance of well-connected special interest groups on their side.  In short, they are without the money and the votes and they are normally outside major media markets and cannot achieve the air time to plead their case.

In my view, “rubes” are often portrayed as feckless by the educated elite, so we can just write them off from serious concern.  But let us change the nomenclature a bit and instead of rubes, let’s call them “barbarians”.  In their origins, the words had similar concepts.  Both represented in the judgment of the ruling class  stupid, ignorant, useless peoples beyond the comfort of polite civilization.  The difference is that barbarians, while commonly dismissed by the “better” folks as stupid and ignorant, were also worthy of respect and fear because of their ferocity and their success at engaging the “better-class” Romans.

Enter Donald Trump:  He seems to lead with a barbarian spirit and countenance.  To demonstrate this perception, I see proponents of the new economy reacting to him in apparent, visceral disgust.

Donald Trump is the catalyst and the stirring of the tribes is visible as he exhorts their passions:  Is the hinterland rising?  The Franks of Louisiana, the Picts of West Virginia, the Vandals of Utah, and the Visigoth of Tennessee are coalescing to challenge Rome’s legacy, our new American economy.

The question is whether it is all just rhetoric or if there is a demographic realignment that will raise fear among the civilized and well connected?  Will the rude and unwashed seize this day or a future day and cause a “political revolution”?

A better (and tamer) option is that our new economic order becomes more inclusive and accepting of their fellow Americans.  Instead of writing off the country-side as fly-over-country, populated by “rubes”, serious consideration must be given to developing its promise, while respecting its cultures.

This will take focus, investment, and dialogue not seen since the founding of the Tennessee Valley Authority.  This is an important and serious consideration that has received little priority recently.

Just the use of the “R” word, which I hear in so many places, projects the disdain of many presumably enlightened folks.  I am positive Dr. Martin Luther King would see there is value in stigmatizing the “R” word so, like the “N” word it is never used in normal society.    I believe he would also feel there are some men and women, village leaders and elders, who possess the wisdom to advance their community’s and their nation’s fortunes and have a fair amount to contribute in this regard, if they only had the tools and a chance.

 


Another “R”  (Republican) – I talked about this article with several folks.  The essay was criticized because it focuses on Democrats and some feel the loss to the heartland is the countryside’s dedication to Republican politics.  I responded that there is a basic difference because Democrats by tradition have assumed the mantle of supporting struggling populations.  Republicans claim they do, but it is through the “power of the market” not, as a rule, through governmental programmatic support.  Republicans believe in caveat emptor: so buyers beware.  These perspectives philosophically shed the accountability of government to develop the economies of people and regions.

If the market fails, the accountability, by and large, rests in Republican thinking with the businesses that participate, not outside governmental interests.  After reading Hollowing Out The Middle – the Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, rural America has a low economic opportunity quotient.   By and large rural markets have not advanced commensurate with the urban areas.  The discussion often is how long rural recoveries lag versus nearby urban economic recoveries.

The challenge is strong but for many reasons rural areas are seldom preferred sites for new economy industries.  In my experience, some jobs are developed from governmental actions to capture western lands for monuments and other resource based preserves created by executive and legislative actions.  These actions advance urban priorities and provide outback diversion for urban populations but the truth on the ground is the action does little to advance rural development that serve rural populations.  At best, they are a “trickle down” stimulant.  There may be a little economy, but a lot of land is lost to often unsympathetic federal administrators caught in their environmental cause, not the countryside and its people.

An encouraging article by James Fallows in the March, 2016 Atlantic, “Can America Put Itself Back Together?” documents positive results in certain communities from their improvement efforts.  Some are rural and others are not, but the general theme is that where it is occurring it is because of local initiatives and local circumstances.

This is a beginning and the “new economy” should establish as a priority a sharing of economic benefits to all populations throughout our nation.  This should not be transfer payments, but instead a policy to level the constraints imposed on urban and rural populations.  Also useful is to share the profit within systems, such as air service, to assure a fully connected America.  Fifty years ago we were much better at seeing America as a continuous tapestry from sea-to-sea.  This is a powerful, progressive vision which can only make our country more compelling for all its people without erasing the closely held values of its diverse cultures.

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